Hebrew language

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Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family spoken by 6 million people mainly in Israel, parts of the Palestinian territories, the United States and by Jewish communities around the world. The core of the Tanakh (sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Bible), the Torah (which Christianity and Judaism traditionally hold to have been first recorded in the time of Moses 3,300 years ago), is written in (Biblical) Classical Hebrew. Jews have always called it לשון הקודש Lashon ha-Qodesh ("The Sacred Language") as the scriptures written in this language were considered sacred. Most scholars agree that after the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Nebuchadnezzar II and the Babylonians in 607 BCE, the kind of Hebrew prevalent in the Tanakh was replaced in daily use by Mishnaic Hebrew and a local version of Aramaic. After the depletion of the Jewish population of parts of Roman occupied Judea, it is believed that Hebrew gradually ceased to be a spoken language roughly around 200 CE, but has stayed as the major written language throughout the centuries. Not only religious, but texts for a large variety of purposes: letters and contracts, science, philosophy, medicine, poetry, protocols of courts—all resorted to Hebrew, which thus adapted itself to various new fields and terminologies by borrowings and new inventions.

Hebrew was revitalized as a spoken language during the late 19th and early 20th century as Modern Hebrew, replacing a score of languages spoken by the Jews at that time, such as Arabic, Judezmo (also called Ladino), Yiddish, Russian, and other languages of the Jewish diaspora as the spoken language of the majority of the Jewish people living in Israel.

Modern Hebrew became an official language in British-ruled Palestine in 1921, and the primary official language of the State of Israel, (Arabic maintained its official language status). The Hebrew name for the language is עברית, or Ivrit (IPA: /ivʲrit/)


While the term "Hebrew" as a nationality is customarily used to refer to the ancient Israelites, the classical Hebrew language was extremely similar to the Canaanite languages spoken by their neighbors, such as Phoenician; indeed, Moabite and Hebrew are often considered to be two dialects of the same language.

Hebrew strongly resembles Aramaic and to a lesser extent South-Central Arabic, sharing many linguistic features with them.

Early history

Template:Jewish language Hebrew is an Afro-Asiatic language. This language family is generally thought by linguists to have originated somewhere in northeastern Africa, and began to diverge around the 8th millennium BCE, although there is much debate about the exact date and place. (The theory is espoused by most archeologists and linguists, but at odds with traditional reading of the Torah.) One branch of this family, Semitic, eventually reached the Middle East; it gradually differentiated into a variety of related languages.

By the end of the 3rd millennium BCE the ancestral languages of Aramaic, Ugaritic, and other various Canaanite languages were spoken in the Levant alongside the influential dialects of Ebla and Akkad. As the Hebrew founders from northern Haran filtered south into and came under the influence of the Levant, like many sojourners into Canaan including the Philistines, they adopted Canaanite dialects. The first written evidence of distinctive Hebrew, the Gezer calendar, dates back to the 10th century BCE, the traditional time of the reign of David and Solomon. It presents a list of seasons and related agricultural activities. The Gezer calendar (named after the city in whose proximity it was found) is written in an old Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician one that through the Greeks and Etruscans later became the Roman script. The Gezer calendar is written without any vowels, and it does not use consonants to imply vowels even in the places where more modern spelling requires it (see below).

The Shebna lintel, from the tomb of a royal steward found in Siloam, dates to the 7th century BCE.

Numerous older tablets have been found in the region with similar scripts written in other Semitic languages, for example Protosinaitic. It is believed that the original shapes of the script go back to the hieroglyphs of the Egyptian writing, though the phonetic values are instead inspired by the acrophonic principle. The common ancestor of Hebrew and Phoenician is called Canaanite, and was the first to use a Semitic alphabet distinct from Egyptian. One ancient document is the famous Moabite Stone written in the Moabite dialect; the Siloam Inscription, found near Jerusalem, is an early example of Hebrew. Less ancient samples of Old Hebrew include the ostraka found near Lachish which describe events preceding the final capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of 586 BCE.

The most famous work originally written in Hebrew is the Tanakh, though the time at which it was written is a matter of dispute (see dating the Bible for details). The earliest extant copies were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, written between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE.

The formal language of the latter Babylonian Empire was Aramaic (its name is either derived from "Aram Naharayim", Upper Mesopotamia, or from "Aram," the ancient name for Syria). The Persian Empire, which had captured Babylonia a few decades later under Cyrus, adopted Aramaic as the official language. Aramaic is also a North-West Semitic language, quite similar to Hebrew. Aramaic has contributed many words and expressions to Hebrew, mainly as the language of commentary in the Talmud and other religious works.

In addition to numerous words and expressions, Hebrew also borrowed the Aramaic writing system. Although the original Aramaic letter forms were derived from the same Phoenician alphabet that was used in ancient Israel, they had changed significantly, both in the hands of the Mesopotamians and of the Jews, assuming the forms familiar to us today around the first century CE. Writings of that era (most notably, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran) are written in a script very similar to the "square" one still used today.

Later history

The Jews living in the Persian Empire adopted Aramaic, and Hebrew quickly fell into disuse. It was preserved, however, as the literary language of Bible study. Aramaic became the vernacular language of the renewed Judaea for the following 700 years. Famous works written in Aramaic include the Targum, the Talmud and several of Flavius Josephus' books (several of the latter were not preserved, however, in the original.) Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Jews gradually began to disperse from Judaea into foreign countries (this dispersion was hastened when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem (and turned it into a pagan city named Aelia Capitolina) in 135 CE after putting down Bar Kokhba's revolt.) For many hundreds of years Aramaic remained the spoken language of Mesopotamian Jews, and Lishana Deni, one of several Judæo-Aramaic languages, is a modern descendant that is still spoken by a few thousand Jews (and many non-Jews) from the area known as Kurdistan; however, it gradually gave way to Arabic, as it had given way to other local languages in the countries to which the Jews had gone.

Hebrew was not used as a mother tongue for roughly 1800 years. However the Jews have always devoted much effort to maintaining high standards of literacy among themselves, the main purpose being to let any Jew read the Hebrew Bible and the accompanying religious works in the original (see rabbinic literature, Codes of Jewish law, The Jewish Bookshelf). It is interesting to note that the languages that the Jews adopted from their adopted nations, namely Ladino and Yiddish were not directly connected to Hebrew (the former being based on Spanish and Arabic borrowings, latter being a remote dialect of Middle High German), however, both were written from right to left using the Hebrew script. Hebrew was also used as a language of communication among Jews from different countries, particularly for the purpose of international trade.

The most important contribution to preserving traditional Hebrew pronunciation in this period was that of scholars called Masoretes (from masoret meaning "tradition"), who from about the seventh to the tenth centuries CE devised detailed markings to indicate vowels, stress, and cantillation (recitation methods). The original Hebrew texts used only consonants, and later some consonants were used to indicate long vowels. By the time of the Masoretes this text was considered too sacred to be altered, so all their markings were in the form of pointing in and around the letters.


Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The revival of Hebrew as a mother tongue was initiated by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) (אליעזר בן־יהודה). He joined the Jewish national movement and in 1881 emigrated to Eretz Israel, then a province of the Ottoman Empire. Motivated by the surrounding ideals of renovation and rejection of the diaspora "shtetl" lifestyle, Ben-Yehuda set out to develop tools for making the literary and liturgical language into everyday spoken language.

However, his brand of Hebrew followed norms that had been replaced in Eastern Europe by more modern grammar and style, in the writings of people like Achad Ha-Am and others. His organizational efforts and involvement with the establishment of schools and the writing of textbooks pushed the vernacularization activity into a gradually accepted movement. It was not, however, until the 1904-1905 "Second aliyah" that Hebrew had caught real momentum in Ottoman Palestine with the new and better organized enterprises set forth by the new group of immigrants. When the British Mandate of Palestine recognized Hebrew as one of the country's three official languages (English, Arabic, and Hebrew, in 1922), its new formal status contributed to its diffusion.

While many saw his work as fanciful or even blasphemous [1], many soon understood the need for a common language amongst Jews of pre-state Israel who at the turn of the 20th century were arriving in large numbers from diverse countries and speaking different languages. A Committee of the Hebrew Language was established. Later it became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that exists today. The results of his and the Committee's work were published in a dictionary (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew). Ben-Yehuda's work fell on fertile ground, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew was well on its way to becoming the main language of the Jewish population of both Ottoman and British pre-State Israel.

Modern Hebrew

Ben-Yehuda based Modern Hebrew on Biblical Hebrew. Often new words were coined by applying unused word-patterns to existing roots (Biblical k-t-v, "write," gave rise to modern Hebrew hikhtiv, "dictated," and hitkatev, "corresponded.") When this did not suffice and the Committee set out to invent a new word for a certain concept, it searched through the Biblical word-indexes and foreign dictionaries, particularly Arabic. While Ben-Yehuda preferred Semitic roots to European ones, the abundance of European Hebrew speakers led to the introduction of numerous foreign words. Other changes which had taken place as Hebrew came back to life were the systematization of the grammar - the Biblical syntax was sometimes limited and ambiguous -- and the adoption of standard Western punctuation.

Modern Hebrew shows influences from Russian (for example, the Russian suffix -acia is used in nouns where English has the suffix -ation); German (particularly in combination words like "tapuakh-adama," meaning potato (German Erdapfel , earth-apple) or "iton" (German Zeitung, news-ity, news-paper). English has been a very strong influence, both from British influence during the period of the Mandate and American influence in the present day. Finally, Arabic, being the language of numerous Mizrahic and Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Arab countries as well as of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, has also had an important influence on Hebrew, especially in slang (for example, "sababa", meaning "excellent", or "yalla", meaning "come on".)

Due to its many influences and its youth, Modern Hebrew has many characteristics which are distinctly not Semitic. At the phonetic level, it has abandoned the pharyngeal and emphatic consonants (in most pronunciations). It also uses the occasional foreign morpheme, in words such as רכבל (meaning "cable car", formed by adding a lamed to the word for "vehicle") and רמזור (meaning "traffic light", formed by adding a vav and a resh to the root for "hinting" and "allusion"). Even so, the Hebrew preserved part of the prominent characteristics of the Semitic languages. One of the main questions which occupying the researchers of the Modern Hebrew is how much the Modern Hebrew is a Semitic language.

Modern Hebrew is printed with a script known as "square". It is the same script, ultimately derived from Aramaic, that was used for copying of Bible books in Hebrew for two thousand years. This script also has a cursive version, which is used for handwriting.

Hebrew has been the language of numerous poets, which include Rachel, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernihovsky, Lea Goldberg, Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman. Hebrew was also the language of hundreds of authors, one of whom is the Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

Hebrew language in the USSR

Main article: History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union, Yevsektsiya

The Soviet authorities considered Hebrew a "reactionary language" since it was associated with both Judaism and Zionism, and it was officially banned by the Narkompros (Commissariat of Education) as early as 1919. Hebrew books and periodicals ceased to be published and were seized from the libraries. Despite numerous protests in the West[2], teachers and students who attempted to study Hebrew language were pilloried and sentenced for "counter revolutionary" and later for "anti-Soviet" activities.


According to Ethnologue, dialects of Hebrew include Standard Hebrew (General Israeli, Europeanized Hebrew), Oriental Hebrew (Arabized Hebrew, Yemenite Hebrew).

In practice, there is also Ashkenazi Hebrew, still widely used in Ashkenazi Jewish religious services and studies in Israel and abroad. It was influenced by the Yiddish language.

Sephardi Hebrew language is the basis of Standard Hebrew and not all that different from it, although traditionally it has had a greater range of phonemes. It was influenced by the Ladino language.

Mizrahi (Oriental) Hebrew is actually a collection of dialects (including Yemenite) spoken liturgically by Jews in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world. It was influenced by the Arabic language.

Nearly every immigrant to Israel is encouraged to adopt Standard Hebrew as their daily language. Phonologically, this "dialect" may most accurately be described as an amalgam of pronunciations preserving Sephardic vowel sounds and Ashkenazic consonant sounds—its recurring feature being simplification of differences among a wide array of pronunciations. This simplifying tendency also accounts for the collapse of the Ashkenazic /t/ and /s/ pronunciations of unaspirated and aspirated ת into the single phoneme /t/. Most Sephardic dialects differentiated between these two pronunciations as /t/ and /θ/. Within Israel, the pronunciation of "Standard Hebrew", however, more often reflects the national or ethnic origin of the individual speaker, rather than the specific recommendations of the Academy. For this reason, over half the population pronounces ר as /ʀ/, (a uvular trill, as in Yiddish and some varieties of German) or as /ʁ/ (a uvular fricative, as in French or many varieties of German), rather than as /r/, an apical trill, as in Spanish. The pronunciation of this phoneme is often used as a determinant among Israelis when ascertaining the national origin of perceived foreigners.

Languages strongly influenced by Hebrew

See main article Jewish languages

Yiddish, Ladino, Karaim, and Judaeo-Arabic were all highly influenced by Hebrew. Although none are completely derived from Hebrew, they all make extensive use of Hebrew loanwords.


Template:IPA notice

Hebrew has two kinds of stress: on the last syllable (milra‘) and on the penultimate syllable (the one preceding the last, mil‘el). The former is more frequent. Specific rules connect the location of the stress with the length of the vowels in the last syllable; however due to the fact that Modern Hebrew does not distinguish between long and short vowels, these rules are often ignored in everyday speech. Interestingly enough, the rules that specify the vowel length are different for verbs and nouns, which influences the stress; thus the mil‘el-stressed ókhel (="food") and milra‘-stressed okhèl (="eats", masculine) are written in the same way. Little ambiguity exists, however, due to nouns and verbs having incompatible roles in normal sentences. This is, however, also true in English, in, for example, the English word "conduct," in its nominal and verbal forms.


The Hebrew word for vowels is tnu‘ot. Modern Israeli Hebrew has 5 vowel phonemes:

  • /a/ (as in "car")
  • /e/ (as in "set")
  • /i/ (as in "beak")
  • /o/ (as in "horn")
  • /u/ (as in "room")

In Biblical Hebrew, each vowel had three forms: short, long and interrupted (hataf). However, there is no audible distinction between the three in modern Israeli Hebrew.

Hebrew phonetics include a special feature called schwa. There are two kinds of schwa: resting (nax) and moving (na' ). The resting schwa is pronounced as a brief stop of speech. The moving schwa sounds much like the English a in about.

Hebrew also has dagesh, a strengthening. There are two kinds of strengthenings: light (qal, known also as dagesh lene) and heavy (xazaq or dagesh fortis). There are two sub-categories of the heavy dagesh: structural heavy (hazaq tavniti) and complementing heavy (hazaq mashlim). The light affects the phonemes /b/ /k/ /p/ in the beginning of a word, or after a resting schwa. Structural heavy emphases belong to certain vowel patterns (mishkalim and binyanim; see the section on grammar below), and correspond originally to doubled consonants. Complementing strengthening is added when vowel assimilation takes place. As mentioned before, the emphasis influences which of a pair of (former) allophones is pronounced. Interestingly enough, historical evidence indicates that /g/, /d/ and /t/ used to have strengthened versions of their own, however they had disappeared from virtually all the spoken dialects of Hebrew. All other consonants except gutturals may receive the heavy emphasis, as well.

One-letter words are always attached to the following word. Such words include: the definite article h (="the"); prepositions b (="in"), m (="from"), l (="to"); conjunctions sh (="that"), k (="as", "like"), v (="and"). The vowel that follows the letter thus attached depends in general on the beginning of the next word and the presence of a definite article which may be swallowed by the one-letter word.

The rules for the prepositions are complicated and vary with the formality of speech. In most cases they are followed by a moving schwa, and for that reason they are pronounced as be, me and le. In more formal speech, if a preposition is put before a word which begins with a moving schwa, then the preposition takes the vowel /i/ (and the initial consonant is weakened), but in colloquial speech these changes do not occur. For example, colloquial be-kfar (="in a village") becomes bi-khfar. If l or b are followed by the definite article ha, their vowel changes to /a/. Thus *be-ha-matos becomes ba-matos (="in the plane"). However it does not happen to m, therefore me-ha-matos is a valid form, which means "from the plane".

* indicates that the given example is not grammatically correct


The Hebrew word for consonants is ‘itsurim (עיצורים).

Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Post-
alveolar Template:Fn
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stops p b Template:Fn t d kTemplate:Fn g ʔ
Fricatives f v Template:Fn s z ʃ ʒ x ʁ h
Affricates ʦ ʧ ʤ
Nasals m n
Laterals l
Approximants j

ע was once pronounced as a voiced pharyngeal fricative. Modern Ashkenazi (Northern and Eastern European Jews) reading tradition ignores this; however, Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African Jews) and Israeli Arabs accent these phonemes in a traditional semitic fashion which resembles Arabic `ain ع. Georgian Jews pronounce it as a glottalized g. Western European Sephardim and Dutch Ashkenazim traditionally pronounce it as "ng" in "sing" — a pronunciation which can also be found in the Italki tradition and, historically, in south-west Germany.

Template:Fnb Postalveolar sounds (with the exception of /ʃ/) are not native to Hebrew, and only found in borrowings.

Template:Fnb The pairs (/b/, /v/), (/k/, /x/), (/p/, /f/), written respectively by the letters bet (ב), kaf (כ) and pe (פ) have historically been allophonic. In Modern Hebrew, however, all six sounds are phonemic, due to mergers involving formerly distinct sounds (/v/ merging with /w/, /k/ merging with /q/, /x/ merging with /ħ/), loss of consonant gemination (which formerly distinguished the stop members of the pairs from the fricatives when intervocalic), and the introduction of syllable-initial /f/ through foreign borrowings.

Historical sound changes

Standard (non-Oriental) Israeli Hebrew (SIH) has undergone a number of splits and mergers in its development from Biblical Hebrew [3].

  • BH /b/ had two allophones, [b] and [v]; the [v] allophone has merged with /w/ into SIH /v/
  • BH /k/ had two allophones, [k] and [x]; the [k] allophone has merged with /q/ into SIH /k/, while the [x] allophone has merged with /ḥ/ into SIH /x/
  • BH /t/ and /ṭ/ have merged into SIH /t/
  • BH /ʕ/ and /ʔ/ have merged into SIH /ʔ/
  • BH /p/ had two allophones, [p] and [f]; the incorporation of loanwords into Modern Hebrew has probably resulted in a split, so that /p/ and /f/ are separate phonemes


See main article Hebrew grammar

Hebrew grammar is mostly analytical, expressing such forms as dative, ablative, and accusative using prepositional particles rather than grammatical cases. However inflection does play an important role in the formation of the verbs, nouns and the genitive construct, which is called "smikhut". Words in smikhut are often combined with hyphens.

Writing system

Modern Hebrew is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form. A similar system is used in handwriting, but the letters tend to be more circular in their character, and sometimes vary markedly from their printed equivalents. Biblical Hebrew text contains nothing but consonants and spaces, and most modern Hebrew texts contain only consonants, spaces and western-style punctuation. A pointing system (nikud, from the root word meaning "points" or "dots") developed around the 5th Century C.E. is used to indicate vowels and syllabic stresses in some religious books, and is almost always found in modern poetry, children's literature, and texts for beginning students of Hebrew. The system is also used sparingly to avoid certain ambiguities of meaning — such as when context is insufficient to distinguish between two identically spelled words — and in the transliteration of foreign names.

All Hebrew consonant phonemes are represented by a single letter. Although a single letter might represent two phonemes — the letter "bet," for example, represents both /b/ and /v/ — the two sounds are always related "hard" (plosive) and "soft" (fricative) forms, their pronunciaton being very often determined by context. In fully pointed texts, the hard form normally has a dot, known as a dagesh, in its center.

The letters hei, vav and yud can represent consonantal sounds (/h/, /v/ and /j/, respectively) or serve as a markers for vowels. In the latter case, these letters are called "emot qria" ("matres lectionis" in Latin, "mothers of reading" in English). The letter hei at the end of a word usually indicates a final /a/, which in turn is usually indicative of feminine gender. Vav may represent /o/ or /u/, and yod may represent /i/. There is no consonantal marker for /e/. In some modern Israeli texts, the letter alef is used to indicate long /a/ sounds in foreign names, particularly those of Arabic origin.

Terminal syllabic emphasis is most common. Fully pointed texts will note variations with a vertical line placed underneath the first consonant of the emphasized syllable, to the left of the vowel mark if there is one.


See also Romanization of Hebrew

The Hebrew language is normally written in the Hebrew alphabet. Due to publishing difficulties, and the unfamiliarity of many readers with the alphabet, there are many ways of transcribing Hebrew into Roman letters. The most accurate method is the International Phonetic Alphabet. It is used (in a simplified ASCII form) in the section concerned with Phonology, to describe the sounds of the Hebrew language. However, the IPA is not well known, and is often considered cumbersome for transcribing pronunciations for a general audience. Therefore this article uses a different system to express Hebrew pronunciation, and at least some orthographic peculiarities. The system comes down to the following:

  • The letter tzadi (צ) is transcribed by "c" so that it could be distinguished from other combinations of /t/ and /s/, although "ts" or "tz" is usually acceptable.
  • The letter ‘ayin (ע) is transcribed ', the same as alef. In word-final position, this phoneme is always preceded by the vowel /a/.
  • The letter shin (ש) is transcribed by "sh".
  • Both the letter tav (ת) and the letter tet (ט) are transcribed by "t".
  • The letter he (ה) at the end of a word, in those cases where it marks feminine gender, is transcribed by "ah" (it is read /a/).
  • The letter chet (ח) is usually transcribed by "ch" as there is no "ch" sound in hebrew. "kh" is usually acceptable but not as common. "h" is occasionally used but often avoided as "h" is also used for he (ה).
  • The letter qof (ק) is transcribed by "q" (it is pronounced /k/ by many speakers).
  • Single-letter prepositions and the definite article are separated with a dash (-) from their subject.
  • Stresses and schwas are not marked.
  • The vowels are always written.
  • The letter yod is usually transcribed by "y".

See also


  1. ^  Protest against the suppression of Hebrew in the Soviet Union 1930-1931 signed by Albert Einstein, among others
  2. ^  Robert Hetzron. (1987). Hebrew. In The World's Major Languages, ed. Bernard Comrie, 686–704. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-520521-9.

External links


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